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Store foes raise procedural issue

The details of a proposed development agreement for a planned Wal-Mart Supercenter are on the docket of tonight's City Commission meeting.

Not so fast, say opponents of the retail giant's bid to build on the Anclote River. Attorneys for the opponents say city officials should stop the planning process until they resolve several procedural problems.

On July 20, the commission passed a resolution abandoning a detailed development plan from 1998 for the 74-acre property. The resolution said a development agreement between the city, the property owner and Wal-Mart would be reached within 90 days.

That agreement, however, has not yet been made final.

So last month, attorneys for a group of Wal-Mart opponents asked the Florida Department of Community Affairs to get involved. Because there was no development agreement reached within 90 days, the commission's decision from July is void, and the old development plan should still be in place, they contend.

"We're just asking that the rules be followed," said Tampa lawyer John B. Grandoff III, who represents a coalition of city residents and property owners in unincorporated Pinellas County. "They're just not doing it the right way."

Marilyn Healy, an attorney for Wal-Mart, said she had received a copy of Grandoff's letter and does not agree with its claims. The decision to abandon the previous plan is still valid, she said. The reasons for a delay in getting an agreement, she said, include things such as the disruption caused by last year's hurricanes.

"We're well within our legal rights and we've proceeded through the process correctly," she said. Wal-Mart, she said, has not sought to delay the process.

Ed Armstrong, an attorney representing the current property owner, Ceridian Corp., likewise said he did not expect the latest issue being raised by opponents to hinder development efforts.

"We're very comfortable that the abandonment (resolution) is valid," he said. "We're very comfortable with our position."

The letter is the latest in a series of attempts by opponents to stop the project. In recent months, the city's review of the proposal has become so multifaceted that it has dominated the time of staff at City Hall.

"Everybody is so focused on this Wal-Mart decision . . . I can't get anything else done," Mayor Beverley Billiris said Monday.

This latest issue concerns a previous development plan for the property. In 1998, local, regional and state officials approved a plan for up to 400,000 square feet of offices and 50,000 square feet of stores on the property, which is on the east side of U.S. 19 just south of the Anclote River.

Last year, the company that owns the property submitted a request to the city to abandon that plan so that it can sell the property to be developed as a Wal-Mart Supercenter.

Last month, Grandoff and colleague Gina Grimes wrote to the state Department of Community Affairs, which was involved in reviewing the 1998 plan for the property. They contended that the 1998 plan is still in effect because no new development agreement has been reached since July. They asked state officials to investigate the status of the 1998 plan.

Representatives of the state Department of Community Affairs did not return calls for comment Monday.

Grandoff also questioned whether the city issued proper notice of the abandonment.

Commissioners were sent a copy of the letter, but Grandoff said he plans to bring up its contents in person when the commission meets at 6:30 tonight at City Hall, 324 E Pine St.

City officials declined to comment Monday on the issues raised by Grandoff and referred questions to the city attorney's office. City Attorney John Hubbard was on vacation and could not be reached for comment.

Billiris said she plans to discuss the issues raised in the letter with Hubbard.

At tonight's meeting, commissioners will vote on an outline of the proposed development agreement. If at least three of five commissioners vote to go forward with the agreement, according to a memo the Planning and Zoning Department sent commissioners last week, the city attorney will draw up a contract.

Tonight's vote is purely procedural, Billiris said.

On Jan. 10, the Planning and Zoning board will hold a public hearing on the project. The City Commission's hearing is Jan. 18.

"Our discussion Tuesday night will in no way imply how any of us will finally vote on the project," she said.

Catherine E. Shoichet can be reached at cshoichetsptimes.com or (727) 771-4307.

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